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ALL THAT GLITTERS
JT Leroy talks with directors David Weissman and Bill Weber about their feature-length documentary on the San Francisco—based "hippie acid-freak drag queen" performance ensemble, The Cockettes.

PHOTOS: CLAY GEERDES.

With their elaborate and glittery performances at the Palace Theatre, the Cockettes, a theatrical drag troupe of gender-bending hippies, exuded the essence of San Francisco in the late ’60s to early ’70s.

Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber have created a "trip" back to this flamboyant era in San Francisco history with a film that’s sure to be the documentary wild ride of the year. The Cockettes, forthcoming from Strand Releasing, has received overwhelming praise from audiences at film festivals worldwide.

From a historical perspective, The Cockettes easily qualify as some of San Franciso’s finest – they had an enormous influence on underground culture during the Summer of Love, the Sexual Revolution and beyond. They moved from the streets to the commune to the stage, and with performances such as "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma" and "Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma," created a cultural phenomenon that gained the support of John Waters, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Truman Capote, Janis Joplin and Diana Vreeland, among many others.

Weissman and Weber take us through their ups and downs with a comprehensive emotional and celebratory look at how, among other contributions, The Cockettes fertilized the soil with just the right combination of nutrients to make rich the land for drag and glitter rock.

 

JT Leroy: Congratulations on the great reviews and success you’re receiving on your film. How was it being at Sundance? Had you been there before with any of your other film work?

David Weissman: Sundance was totally fun. It can be very stressful – hustling the movie, trying to get people to see it, hoping that they like it. But we started out with a great review in the Hollywood Reporter, and it just got better as the week went on.

Bill Weber: We also had a fantastic support team there – we had two very experienced sales reps, a great PR firm, not to mention a bunch of Cockettes, who got a lot of attention.

Weissman: I’d been there a few times, but never with a film in competition.

Weber: It was my first time – my first festival as a filmmaker, actually – other than our sneak preview at the Castro.

Leroy: What inspired you to begin working on this film? How long ago was it?

Weber: The inspiration came long ago, for both David and me. Both of us, in our late teens, saw the Cockette film Tricia’s Wedding, [about the wedding of Tricia Nixon Cox]. We both had a similar experience of being completely blown away by this wild subversive comedy with bearded drag queens on acid. But the idea to make this film originated with David.

Weissman: I was at Cafe Flore with Michael Shain, who played Lady Bird Johnson in Tricia’s Wedding, and we were just talking about how great it would be for someone to make a film about The Cockettes. In that moment, I realized that no one would do it but me, so that’s really where it started. Just about four years ago exactly.

Leroy: How did you guys work together as co-directors?

Weissman: The first decision I made on this film, and by far the best, was asking Bill to work with me. He hates when I say this, but he is a genius. We both brought very different and highly complementary assets to The Cockettes.

Weber: I think from the very beginning we had a very similar vision of the story we wanted to tell, and, ultimately, we wound up making the movie we’d hoped to make. There has always been a great deal of mutual respect between us, which allowed us to both do the tasks we needed to do without a lot of anxiety about what the other was doing, or what the other would think.

Leroy: What filmmakers have influenced you in your work?

Weissman: That’s always a really hard question for me. I respond to so many different kinds of films. But I’d have to say that for me, Fellini has always been an idol. His combination of conceptual and visual wildness, along with his tenderness and human insight – it’s an ideal blend.

Weber: Certainly John Waters was an early influence, as was Preston Sturges.

Leroy: Are there any particular documentary filmmakers, like Robert Epstein, who have inspired you?

Weber: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk might have been the first time that I realized the potential healing power of documentary filmmaking. I realized that again a few years back with Frances Reid’s and Deborah Kaufman’s Long Nights Journey Into Day. Both those San Francisco films and filmmakers have inspired me, among others.

Weissman: Documentary filmmakers in general inspire me. It’s such a huge mountain to climb. You have to be totally passionate and a bit nuts to do this.

Leroy: The film is so rich with content the audience can see it again and again and have a different experience each time, I think. Where did all the film footage come from? Was most of it used or is there a lot more out there?

Weissman: The footage came from a wide variety of sources. Some of it we knew about beforehand, some came out of the blue. There were the old Cockette films –Tricia’s Wedding, Elevator Girls in Bondage, a film called The Palace, filmed at one of their shows, but then we also discovered a bunch of incredible stuff.

Weber: Some of the real treasures are the short films made by Jilala, who is one of the interviewees in the film. He made these incredibly beautiful and magical Super-8 films in his apartment during and after the Cockette era, films that have never been seen before. They are absolutely amazing. His work really should be in a museum.

Leroy: John Waters is wonderful and I love his quote about The Cockettes where he said, "They were hippie acid-freak drag queens, which was really new at the time. It STILL would be new!"

Weber: With John, and with all the Cockettes actually, we continue to hear new stories that we haven’t heard before. John is endlessly quotable, and an absolutely wonderful person. He’s been so generous to us, and very supportive of the film.

Weissman: At our Sundance premiere he wouldn’t let photographers shoot him unless someone from The Cockettes, either Bill or I or one of the cast, was in the picture.

Leroy: What do you think made them feel so free to live the way they did?

Weissman: It was San Francisco in the ’60s, a time of incredible social experimentation and rebellion against middle-American values. Between the political ferment of the era, and the use of LSD and other drugs, it made for very freewheeling atmosphere.

Leroy: Did they own the house they lived in, like a co-op or something?

Weber: Oh, god no. Everyone was penniless.

Weissman: It’s hard to imagine in today’s San Francisco, but rents in that time were incredibly cheap. That’s part of what allowed the counterculture to develop – cheap living.

Weber: And most of them were on welfare of some sort or food stamps. It was part of the whole rebellion against the system, to use it to support your alternative lifestyle.

Leroy: How many members were there originally and how many did it grow to?

Weber: [He laughs.] A very hard question to answer. Probably every Cockette would answer it differently.

Weissman: There were probably between 30 and 40 who could be considered "key" Cockettes over the two-and-a-half-year life span of the group, but many many more came and went during that time.

Leroy: How many children were there? Did they actually perform?

Weissman: There was really only one child Cockette, an infant, Ocean Michael Moon, who was Dusty Dawn’s baby.

Weber: His performance was mostly at Dustys breast. She was always feeding him on stage.

Leroy: How many of the members are still alive and do any of them live like that now, like in a commune, or do they like to dress in drag or do shows or anything?

Weber: There’s probably about 15 to 20 still around from the core group. Sadly, two of The Cockettes who we interviewed in the film, Dusty and Reggie, have died since the film was completed.

Weissman: Scrumbly is the only one who is still performing really, he’s been involved in music and theater ever since those days. Most of them still have some creative focus in their lives, and some are very much involved in alternative communities.

Leroy: I am amazed how they created new shows like every few weeks. How did they do that? It is amazing! Who were the principle writers?

Weber: The early shows were pretty anarchic – musical reviews with crazy themes and costumes. Hibiscus usually came up with the themes, but there were no "writers" to speak of. People would often create their own numbers, and it would come together – or apart – organically.

Weissman: As the shows became more scripted, certain writers came to the forefront, particularly Link Martin, who died in the early ’70s, and Martin Worman. But there was always a lot of fluidity to the creative process. Even the scripted shows changed from performance to performance.

Leroy: Did they ever receive any negative feedback from "the establishment," so to speak – like from political camps regarding the film Tricia’s Wedding? Or did it just go over their heads?

Weissman: Apparently, two of Nixon’s henchmen watched Tricia’s Wedding in the White House basement, and thought it was such trash that they didn’t need to worry about it.

Weber: Otherwise, they didn’t get much negative response – not politically at least. [He laughs.] It was a much wilder time than now.

Leroy: What do you think it was that kept New Yorkers from appreciating the camp and originality of The Cockettes? Do you think it exemplifies major differences in lifestyle between the East Coast and the West Coast during that time period?

Weissman: Dusty Dawn said it was "counterculture, east and west, completely different." I think this was partially true, but also The Cockettes themselves kind of blew things on their opening night [in New York]. The whole thing was an accumulation of misconceptions and bad planning.

Weber: I think there were a lot of differences culturally. New York was much more jaded and sophisticated, and also used to a certain level of theater. And The Cockettes were these wild, happy hippies from California who didn’t give a shit about professionalism. In San Francisco, the audience was part of the show; in New York, it was about Theater, and it didn’t translate so well.

Weissman: I had also been fascinated with the 1964 LSD story of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ trip to New York, and their collision with the Tim Leary camp at Millbrook, where drugs were an inward experience. That clash of the wildly screaming and dancing San Francisco contingent with the serious, contemplative New Yorkers was also true in the Cockette story.

Leroy: I think folks are really going to come out of this wishing they could step back in time. I’m sure they will feel they have in some way. What do you hope folks will take with them from the film?

Weber: I hope that it gives them a richer understanding and appreciation of that time, but also that it inspires people to find more joy and creativity in their own lives.

Weissman: The themes are timeless, I think. The importance of questioning the status quo, of finding your own truth and your own way to express that truth.

Leroy: Do you there will ever be a reunion performance?

Weissman: Not likely, though there is talk of mounting a new version of Pearls Over Shanghai, their most successful show.

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